What Is The Dark Web and Who Is Using It?
Just as most cities have areas most people try to avoid because of the high crime rate, so does the virtual community of the internet. While most of us hang out in the virtual equivalent of Starbucks, others choose to revel in the more nefarious environment of the Dark Web.
How to get on the Dark Web is a little more complex than accessing the surface web we’re more familiar with, however, and a special type of browser is required. While this the online equivalent of a dodgy pub where cybercriminals exchange the tools to do their dirty work, it’s also the place where political activists, journalists, and whistleblowers hang out.
Whatever your motivation for heading into the Dark Web, it’s important to bear in mind the security issues surrounding this deeper virtual experience and how to enter it safely and effectively.
How to Get on the Dark Web
If you’ve ever wondered how to access the Dark Web, the first step in the process is to download the correct software to open the gateway to its secret treasures. The most popular browser is Tor, but there are a host of alternative options that will connect you to this subsection of the virtual world and anonymize your entry by encrypting your data every step of the way.
The Tri Factor of Virtual Experience
While most of us are content to wander around the surface web, this gives us access to just a portion of the entire contents of the virtual world. The clean or surface web is where Google shows us around and helps us to access all-important content like cat videos and songs on YouTube, social media sites, the latest news, and information about pretty much everything under the sun.
Google guides us through this section using crawlers to access indexed pages. Although the clean or surface web contains somewhere in the region of 4.5 billion pages, this is only around 4% of the entire web. In effect, the clean web is the equivalent of the surface of the ocean, with the deep and dark webs forming the rest of the sea.
Forming the largest layer of the internet, the Deep Web is basically a huge warehouse where information and sensitive documents can be stored. The Dark Web forms a small part of it, but overall, any pages or information that can’t be accessed using standard search engines is considered a part of the Deep Web. If you have ever logged onto your email account online, you’ve effectively entered the Deep Web. Similarly, if you’ve logged into a password-protected website, you’ve been in the Deep Web.
This small section of the Deep Web that can be entered only via a series of overlay networks. To do this, you need a special web browser that’s capable of unencrypting the Dark Web’s secrets. Once there, you can buy everything from rocket launchers to heroin. It’s not all about felonious activities, however, and many people use it to protect themselves against government censorship or to offer anonymous information about underhand behavior within a private organization or at government level. In fact, “A lot of people use it in countries where there’s eavesdropping or where internet access is criminalized.”
Best Dark Web Browsers – How To Access The Dark Web
Because the Dark Web operates differently to the surface web, it requires a different approach to browsing. While a browser on the surface web, like Google or Bing, for example, will connect the user directly to the website of their choice, Tor wraps it in several layers of encryption, sending it to a random entry node which bounces the access request to a middle relay point, before spitting it out at an exit node. The three layers of encryption are similar to the layers of an onion, which is why it’s known as The Onion Router. Tor isn’t the only browser capable of doing this, however, and the best dark web browsers are efficient at solving the problem of how to access the Dark Web.
Even with all these layers of encryption, however, most users agree that utilizing a VPN in conjunction with Tor is the safest way of burrowing into Dark Web content. Some VPNs, like NordVPN, for example, have developed specialist servers designed to combine both VPN and Tor technology. For now, however, let’s take a look at the best browsers for getting into the Dark Web.
One of the most popular and commonly used Dark Web browsers is Tor which was developed by the US Naval Research Laboratory back in the mid-1990s. Originally designed to protect online intelligence communications, this open-source software is now used by around two million people per day. Tor comes in two distinct forms – the network and the browser – the first of which is utilized by other Dark Web browsers which have emerged in competition with Tor.
Tor is a powerful browser that offers cutting-edge security and anonymity and was once the leading light when it came to how to access the Dark Web. Unfortunately, Tor doesn’t hide your IP address. It simply makes it more difficult to track, which is why it’s best to use it in conjunction with one of the best VPNs for Tor.
Tor gives users the ability to access dark web content anonymously, but it nevertheless has its drawbacks. Tor is notorious for its tendency to slow down connection speeds and traffic, due to the encryption process, and it also blocks browser plugins such as RealPlayer, Flash, and QuickTime, which are often used for torrenting but can, according to Tor, “be manipulated into revealing your IP address”.
Also known as the Invisible Internet Project, I2P works in a very similar way to Tor, directing users’ traffic through a volunteer network comprised of around 55,000 computers or exit nodes. User traffic is encrypted with both private and public keys, enabling them to create censorship-free online communities, even in highly restrictive environments, like China, for example.
I2P works slightly differently compared to many Dark Web browsers in that it hides both the originator and recipient, rather than just one or the other. Like Tor, the disparate nature of the I2P network means it’s difficult to compromise, as there is no central point that can be exploited.
Although I2P has yet to reach the capacity of Tor, making it more vulnerable to state-level blocking and less able to deal with a high volume of traffic, it does have some advantages, most noticeably, with regards to speed. I2P is also a lot smaller than Tor and has therefore experienced fewer DOS attacks or attempts.
Unlike Tor, I2P allows for P2P traffic and torrenting but has yet to develop a similarly economic bandwidth or memory usage. Nevertheless, I2P has developed Dark Web browsers for Android as well as common operating systems like Linux, Windows, and Mac. I2P is also an effective way of accessing hidden onion links.
If you’re looking for a solution to the issue of how to get on the Dark Web, and neither Tor or I2P appeal to you, then Freenet is your next best option. Freenet is a dynamic peer-to-peer network that can be used to anonymously browse websites that are accessible only via the Freenet network. Users can similarly share files and chat online without worrying about possible censorship.
As with both Tor and I2P, Freenet uses a decentralized network to make it almost impervious to attack and potential censorship. It has a variety of modes available, including its darknet mode, which allows users to connect to their online friends, but won’t allow access to anyone else. All Freenet traffic is encrypted and sent via a variety of nodes, making it even more difficult for government representatives or hackers to work out where that traffic is traveling from and where its destination may be.
Each Freenet user contributes a portion of both their bandwidth and their hard drive storage space, while the encryption means even they don’t necessarily know what’s stored on their hard drive, meaning they can’t be held responsible for the contents.
Freenet isn’t as far-reaching as Tor at this stage, but is constantly growing and is being used globally, especially in countries where censorship threatens freedom of speech, such as the Middle East and China.
Using the Tor network as its basis, Whonix provides an open network that provides anonymous and private access to the Dark Web. Whonix is also a comprehensive operating system that can be used to create a private and untraceable server all of your own.
Many Dark Web browser users operate it on a Virtual Machine to ensure that any unpleasant malware or similar infections don’t contaminate their actual operating system. Whonix has been specifically designed to run on both the Tor network and a VM. Enforced connections mean that DNS leaks are virtually impossible, even at the root level.
Whonix works in a slightly different way to other distros, or software distribution packages, in that it uses two virtual appliances, each of which is run on a separate virtual machine. By connecting to a Whonix Workstation, users can direct all their traffic via the Whonix gateway to the Tor network, giving them greater anonymity and preventing anyone from finding out the user’s original IP address.
In addition to the usual encryption used by Dark Web browsers, Whonix also uses Data Stream Isolation in combination with Tor to reduce the chances of a user being tracked. In a sense, it’s like having a disguise that also wipes out your footprints as you travel.
TAILS, or The Amnesiac Incognito Live System, forces all its users’ connections through the Tor network. TAILS is reported to be one of the world’s most secure operating systems and was famously used by Edward Snowden to anonymize his internet traffic when leaking National Security Agency secrets.
TAILS solves the problem of how to get into the Dark Web by creating a kind of virtual computer on which Tor runs automatically. This makes it easier for those without as much technical know-how to enjoy the privacy of the Tor network. All you must do is install TAILS on an external drive and away you go.
No data is stored locally once you’re in the TAILS operating system, making it impervious to malware attacks. According to one of the TAILS’ team, with the “masters of today’s internet”, like Facebook and Google, wanting to make individuals’ online lives increasingly transparent, developing an operating system that counteracts this tendency is both logical and positive in terms of online anonymity and privacy.
There is a bit of a learning curve with TAILS, especially when getting started, and its poorly designed website doesn’t offer much in the way of assistance. Nevertheless, once you’ve got it installed and are starting to feel comfortable with it, it is a great way to access both Tor and the Dark Web.
The Dark Web and its Legal Complexities
Heading into the Dark Web without a VPN is even more foolish than heading out into a snowstorm without a jacket. Although it is legal to access Dark Web content, it can still land you in hot water. The problem is that the Dark Web is only accessible through an encrypted connection, which means it’s also ideal for cybercriminals. As a result, anyone accessing the Dark Web could potentially access illegal sites or engage in unlawful activities.
That means that even the most innocuous access request could be intercepted by law enforcement officials and lead to the user being exposed to the seize-and-search process during which their device is confiscated and checked for illegal content.
While it’s undeniable that law enforcement agencies should deal with cybercrime with the same level of commitment as it does any other unlawful activity, some worry that such an aggressive stance “could turn into a meta-warrant issued to give the FBI jurisdiction to attack entire anonymity networks like the Tor Network”.
It is possible to avoid many of these challenges by using a VPN in conjunction with your Dark Web browser. ExpressVPN, for example, is a fast and powerful no-logging VPN that offers military-grade protection and is dedicated to user privacy. As ExpressVPN, or any other of the best VPNs for that matter, will encrypt your entry into the Tor network, it effectively blindfolds your ISP so they can’t see where you’ve gone or what you’re doing.
Although you can opt to connect to a VPN before you connect to Tor, or the other way around, the former is generally accepted as the most secure method, anonymizing your data while safeguarding your privacy.
As we mentioned earlier, NordVPN offers a slightly different solution to the problem of how to access the Dark Web, as does Astrill VPN. Specialty servers provide Onion over VPN which replicates the Tor network’s onion layers of encryption and combines them with VPN protection. While it’s difficult to establish whether this is as secure as the VPN/Tor combination, it certainly provides a simple, one-step way of accessing onion sites.
Even if you’re simply using the Tor network for casual browsing and delving into the Dark Web for privacy reasons rather than nefarious profit-making ones, heading out there without some kind of protection is potentially dangerous. Not only could you suffer the inconvenience and expense of a malware infection, but you could also have your device confiscated by lawful enforcement agencies.
Tor remains the leader when it comes to offering a solution to the problem of how to access the Dark Web, but any of the browsers listed in this article will be similarly effective in terms of both access and anonymization. A VPN, however, is a crucial part of any cybersecurity toolbox and will prevent your ISP from detecting your entry into the Dark Web.
Whether you choose to jump feet first into NordVPN’s Onion over VPN method or opt instead for the speed and reliability of ExpressVPN paired with a top Dark Web browser, it’s going to be a much safer way to access the Dark Web than simply running on in with any forethought. The best browsers for the Dark Web will help you find the content you’re looking for, while a VPN will make sure no one else knows about it. Be warned, however, there are some scary things down there in the Dark Web and a lot of content we at Secure Thoughts would never condone or endorse.